School board openings attract scores of candidates in 13 counties

Desire to fix systems, concerns for children prompt most to run

March 05, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

A veterinarian, a school bus driver, an accountant and scores of other political novices are united behind a fierce conviction: They can change the school system in their community.

Thirteen Maryland counties have school board elections on their ballots in Tuesday's primary, with some attracting unusually crowded fields of candidates for positions offering little pay, long hours and, quite often, loads of complaints from constituents.

Twenty-two candidates are running for two seats in Carroll County. Seventeen people are running for two seats in Howard County, and 18 are vying for three seats in Frederick County.

It isn't self-evident why anyone would run. The campaigns aren't glamorous. Frequently this year, candidate debates have attracted only twice as many voters as candidates. And unless some issue is riling the community, board members spend hours in meeting rooms, debating in front of empty seats.

Yet candidates emerge with energy for each election. And what seems to bind them is a sense of ownership of their local school system and a firm belief that their experiences, whatever they are, give them perspective to improve it.

Betty Windsor, 34, would never run for the House of Delegates. She would never consider being a county commissioner. She said her 14 years as a school bus driver haven't prepared her for any of that. She is running for school board in Frederick County, confident that conversations with young passengers have given her insight that could make a difference.

`Not politically motivated'

"I'm not politically motivated -- that has no interest to me," said Windsor. "The kids do. I've worked with them so long, I'm addicted to them. I see where an education can make them or break them."

Political observers say that while they don't anticipate a time when such elections will draw huge voter interest, education reform is becoming a major priority nationally and locally. Concern is growing that school systems are no longer producing the best results, they say, perhaps the reason candidates are jumping at the chance to run this year.

In the 1996 and 1998 school board primaries in Howard and Carroll counties, no more than nine candidates ran. Carroll did not hold a primary in 1996 because only four people were running. Frederick County, where school boards were previously appointed by the governor, is holding its first school board election this year.

Those interested usually find it easy to become a candidate. School board races are nonpartisan, meaning candidates don't have to be party insiders to gain attention. And because few voters pay much attention, the observers say, it doesn't take many votes to win.

Donald R. Jansiewicz, a political science professor at Carroll Community College, said elections where only school boards are on the ballot typically draw about a 12 percent turnout in Maryland -- meaning a handful of votes can go a long way.

"An individual can just say, `I want to run,' " Jansiewicz said. "You say you want to run for House of Delegates, you better get some people on your side."

Henry George Griese IV is a senior at Washington College in Chestertown. During one week in February, he made three round trips home to Carroll County to campaign, despite having three exams the same week and a 70-page thesis due soon. At 21, Griese said he knows better than anyone that public schools are not preparing students to go to college.

"I feel like my writing skills were lacking. Every time I talk to professors here, I'm lacking in the same area. I feel like I wasn't taught how to write my best," said Griese, who boasted that he received at least a B on all three exams despite his busy campaign schedule. "I feel like I'm supposed to help -- this would be a way to help a lot of people."

Serving on a school board is often a thankless and time-consuming job. In Carroll County, most members hold full-time jobs but spend hours each week in school meetings and get an annual stipend of $3,000.

"It's a low-profile job and a low-profile organization," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who studies local government. He also said school boards are rarely launching pads for higher political office.

"There is a hierarchy of political salience. At the top is the president and Congress, then maybe the governor. You get to the local level, and there is a whole hierarchy at that level."

`Their future is involved'

But talk to candidates, and a seat on a school board sounds like the most important job in the world.

"It's children, and their future is involved," said Glenn Amato, a Howard County candidate. "Whatever a school board does directly impacts children and their ability to survive in the world. When they do something it hits a lot closer to home. I'm not really a public type of person. I just feel so strongly about this."

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